Why do some people have multiple partners?

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital “Premium” edition every Thursday…

When you think about it “non-monogamy” isn’t that unusual, it’s just the consensual bit some might find a novelty. Kyle MacDonald explains.

The American Psychological Association recently caused a bit of a stir in conservative Christian communities in the USA by announcing they were forming a new research group, the “Task Force on Consensual Non-Monogamy”.

This very unsexy name – for quite a sexy topic – is a term used interchangeably with polyamory, or the practice of having more than one intimate partner at one time. For some people this involves having more than one intimate relationship. For some it can be an “open relationship” where having sexual relationships with other people is open and okay by both partners – what the APA describes as range of “ethical non-monogamous relationships”.

Now, this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, as it were. And it’s certainly not hard to figure out why conservative Christians are up in arms about the APA seemingly endorsing such relationships.

But psychiatry and psychology has an important role to play in what we consider “normal”, and hasn’t always done that well. It took far too long for psychiatry to accept that same sex attraction was not a pathology, for instance.

These kinds of changes don’t “endorse” any particular behaviour, but they do acknowledge that there isn’t anything pathological about them either.

What this kind of task force does is hopefully protect people from stigma and judgment by encouraging more research and understanding as to why some people are drawn to these less common types of relationships.

Ultimately understanding, not stigmatising, has always been the stated goal of psychology.

If, like me, you’re a bit old fashioned and have trouble getting your head around being able to manage such an arrangement, that’s understandable, but what is clear is that quietly people have always practised all sorts of ethical non-monogamous relationships – and if everyone involved is okay with it, what’s the problem?

In fact, when you think about it “non-monogamy” isn’t that unusual, it’s just the consensual bit some might find a novelty.

Because there have always been limits to how much we can rely upon one person to meet all our needs. We have a range of friends and relationships to meet different needs. It’s also true that intimate relationships evolve over time, and in most cases they move away from passionate, erotic, highly charged beginnings into mature stable, committed deeper forms of love and connection.

With this in mind, what some recent fledgling research about consensual non-monogamy tells us isn’t really much of a surprise.

And maybe this is the lesson that we can all learn. Putting aside sex for a moment – and the somewhat titillating appeal of having sex with whomever you want – maybe we should all be more open to cultivating a range of relationships that meet our wide range of needs, even if, like me, you’re old fashioned enough to still only have one sexual partner.

(Click here to read the article on the NZ Herald…)

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